My extended family of 11 took a New Year's cruise on the Norwegian Sun. Most of have cruised several times before. Personally, this was my fourth, and it was our first experience with Freestyle Cruising. We very much enjoyed the ship and the ports of call. I will try to address items not mentioned in other reviews of this vessel.
We specifically chose this cruise because we felt Freestyle would work well for a larger group. However, the opposite was the case. If it had just been my wife, my son and I, we would have enjoyed the Freestyle dining flexibility much more. The cruise line states that larger groups can work with the maitre d' to make reservations in the regular dining rooms. However, this means eating before 6:00 p.m. or after 8:30 p.m. If we wanted to eat at 7:30, and all be at one table, we had to take our chances with Freestyle.
One night we waited an hour for an available table. Another night we were told we would have to be at separate tables, but eventually we all got one table. On our last night we had reservations at Pacific Heights (one of the specialty restaurants; I'd give the food here a C), and a woman from another party had a meltdown at the hostess desk, screaming that the ship had messed up her group's reservations every night (party of 16). Bottom line: Freestyle has a tough time with larger groups.
We got the impression that the staff was not particularly well trained. Many times we couldn't get answers to questions from people that should have known the answers. We got at least four different answers regarding when we could make dinner reservations. When our diving-with-the-stingrays excursion in Grand Cayman was cancelled due to high winds, the dive people had no answers to our questions about other possible excursions. Someone from the shore excursion desk should have been there to help us all arrange other excursions. We wound up with a beach trip, but once we went ashore, it was confusing to discern our transportation from the private taxi drivers selling the same trip; then we didn't have the right tickets at the beach for chairs, drinks, etc.
Another example was at dinner. One evening, two folks from our party ordered the special salad of the evening, greens with goat cheese and pine nut vinaigrette dressing. One person got a plate of goat cheese. The other got a plate with a wedge of iceberg lettuce, and the waitress brought a plastic bottle of Seven Seas dressing and squirted it on the lettuce. The automatic tipping process has its positive aspects -- mainly that the staff is not walking around with their hand out on the last day -- but there are drawbacks too. Not having the same waiter every night means you don't build the rapport that you get with traditional cruising. Also, it seems that the staff has no incentive to provide impeccable service, as they know they will get their tip anyway.
We wanted to find a private charter for the whole family on a day sail, and we found exactly what we wanted on Roatan, where Salty Dog Sea Charters (www.roatansailing.com) has a 34-foot vessel for charter. It was perfect for our family outing. Captain Dusty met us at the dock with his mini-bus, which took us to West End Beach. He picked up fresh sandwiches on the way. We sailed along the coast for about two hours and had soda, bottled water, beer and rum drinks. Then we anchored and snorkeled along the barrier reef. Great snorkeling! After dive master Allie finished guiding us through and around the reef (she was great with my 12-year-old son), we returned to the boat for a delicious lunch, then returned to the ship. It was a great day -- not only much better than any excursion the cruise line offered, but cheaper and longer. Phone service is very poor on Roatan (this is a very poor country), but e-mail works fine, and Captain Dusty is very responsive.
Cave tubing in Belize is a lot of fun. They aren't kidding when they say that the trail is muddy and the water is cold. Being from Maine, we scoffed at what they considered to be cold water, but when we got out of our tubes to go around the rapids, most of us were shivering. However, this is something you just don't get to do in other places, and we got some great pictures.
If you have a pre-teen who likes soda, definitely get the soda bracelet at the kids' club for $16. We figure we made that money back on the first day. They also sold teens a coupon booklet for soda and frozen drinks. We didn't buy one, but it seemed like a good deal too.
Bring a lighted clock for your cabin. There are no clocks anywhere other than on the TV, and it only shows the time every so often, when tuned into a station. And bring a bar of soap for the shower unless you can live with liquid body wash for the week.
With Freestyle Cruising, you can wear any clothing (long pants and collared shirts) on any night. However, our ship had two optional formal nights, a Caribbean night, a 60s night, etc., which we did not plan for. As it was all optional, it's no big deal, but it would have been nice to know in advance in case we wanted to get dressed for those nights.
Nonetheless, the bottom line is that everyone in our group had a great time, enjoyed the ship and the food, loved the ports of call, and would recommend the cruise to anyone thinking about taking it.